This week’s Russia Magazine! column, “Victory’s Essential, but Unwanted Guest,”
Victory Day is Russia’s most sacred holiday. The day marks Russia’s most traumatic moment in its turbulent twentieth century. The war supplants all previous traumas: WWI, the Revolution, the Civil War, and the Great Terror. In many respects it even absorbs the Soviet Union’s collapse, if only because victory over the Nazis makes the whole Soviet experiment worth it. Indeed, Victory Day has such resonance that it provides Russians one of the few means to reconcile their Soviet past with their post-Soviet present. And in an increasingly divided Russia, it is one of the few days of genuine national unity.
As Lev Gudkov put it in his 2005 essay, “The Fetters of Victory,”
All [Soviet] components of the positive collective unity of the idea of “us” are eroding. After their devaluation has brought to the fore a range of complexes of hurt self-esteem and inferiority, Victory now stands out as a stone pillar in the desert, the vestige of a weathered rock. All the most important interpretations of the present are concentrated around Victory; it provides them with their standards of evaluation and their rhetorical means of expression.
A stone pillar for sure, except for one essential capstone in that victory: Stalin.
Stalin has yet to find his place in contemporary Russian memory of Victory. He is a figure that is evoked at the same time he’s repudiated. In both instances—total embrace and total rejection—Stalin is fetishized as savior or destroyer, angel or demon, neither of which is any less violent. The difference is in who he smites with his sword, not how he wields it. The tension between these two figures makes Stalin eternally split. Thus, he was the leader of the nation during the war. Yet displaying his image is taboo. The system he created facilitated victory with all its attending scars and burns. But to give Stalin credit verges on blasphemy. Stalin embodied the unity of the Soviet people. Yet their victory is not his. On the day to commemorate Russia’s greatest tragedy and triumph, Stalin remains the guest you have to invite, but one you pray doesn’t show.